On Adventure and Irony
There is some basis for the romantic aura that fiction occasionally accords to my profession. We actually do on occasion undergo the sort of experiences that are the gist of popular literature and action movies. In the winter of 1994, in the aftermath of a heavy rain, a section of paving in the southern part of the town of Akko subsided, and the neighbouring residents found that their drains had become blocked. This led to the discovery that below their houses there was something entirely unknown and quite remarkable. I was invited by the local archaeologist to see this new discovery: a beautifully constructed, stone-lined tunnel running east from the former site of the Templar palace on the western shore of the town. We slipped down through the cavity that had opened in the street paving and descended into a large barrel-vaulted chamber. In the glare of a projector beam that had been lowered down before us was an apparition that can only be described as spellbinding. On one side there was an arched door and two windows set in the thick wall, which being well below the present ground level were blocked with soil and rubble. On another side, through a large opening in the chamber wall we could see further below us another broad vault, a passage extending to the east and then dividing into two smaller but still quite large passages that vanished off into the dark. The air in the chamber we were in was oppressive with the heady foetor of mould and damp, and every so often we could hear the rush of water as a flow of sewage from the houses above poured suddenly down the walls into unknown depths; into the roots of the city. In the beam from the projector, with our shadows lurching against the stone, every surface appeared to be moving. Wherever light struck the walls we could see thousands, tens of thousands perhaps of cockroaches, their antennae twitching nervously so that very stones appeared to be alive.
In the dark this remarkable structure seemed like nothing so much as medieval version of a London underground station. It has, since I saw it, been excavated for its entire length, all the way across the southern end of the town to reach the harbour. It has been cleaned up, cleared of the sewage and mould, its former hexapod residents have been massacred in a slaughter on a scale far greater than that of 1291. Today the "Templar Tunnel" is a popular tourist attraction. It reveals something of what remains hidden below this ramshackle, dirty town, just a small part of a still largely unexplored medieval Pompeii, with its buried streets, its palaces and its sewers.
Here is the irony that archaeologists so welcome. As at Pompeii, it is sometimes a violent event that proves beneficial in preserving the past. The sudden destruction of this erstwhile capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem by the army of al-Ashraf Khalil on the 18th of May 1291; the intentional dismantling and subsequent abandonment of the site for several hundred years has left large parts of the medieval city buried under piles of rubble. This has resulted in the preservation of much more of thirteenth century Acre than would have been the case had it been left intact by its conquerors.
In the light of this week's horrific conflagration at Notre-Dame de Paris and considering the extremely deteriorated condition of much of the cathedral's masonry prior to the fire, there is perhaps a silver lining to the clouds of smoke that rose over the Île de la Cité on Monday. Having made reconstruction unavoidable and having awakened the enthusiasm of philanthropists to fund the restoration and of the government to prioritise it, it is perhaps the fire that has saved this beautiful monument.